Viewers watching the Tour de France on Thursday saw a fascinating, aggressive mountain stage that lifted the tone and quality of a race that has taken a while to mature. The intensity of the racing over some of the toughest terrain in the Alps added to the thrill of seeing most of the genuine podium contenders (and their teammates!) engaged in several no-holds-barred battles. At face value, it was pure entertainment. But so many different strategies and tactics were at work from several different teams that it was hard to keep up with what was actually happening—especially in the context of the nine stages still to come.
Strategy meetings are key to how teams plan each stage. Every evening, the sports directors discuss tactics (and maybe look at race videos from previous Tours) and agree what are their best plans for the next day. Then, in the team bus before the stage start, the head director talks with all the riders to relay his best plans to them.
Former HTC-Highroad team director Brian Holm, now with Omega Pharma-Quick Step, explained how his squad’s tactics have evolved over the course of this Tour. “This year, we thought we could go for the podium with Peter Velits or Levi Leipheimer,” he said. “You have to start optimistic. After a few days we had to change our plan when we realized it was a little too optimistic. So now we try to get away in breakaways and try to win stages.”
Holm explained that the different strategies used by different teams can make for complicated situations that can be tough to evaluate sometimes. “There are so many different things going on,” he said. “RadioShack, they just ride for the team prize, and they don’t have anybody to go for the white jersey or the polka dots. Another team may be defending, say, the white jersey and so they will chase a group that has someone who’s maybe third or fourth in that competition. So that’s how it goes….”
Speaking outside his team bus in Albertville before Thursday’s stage, Holm talked about the likely tactics for the 148-kilometer climbing stage compared with earlier, flatter ones. “Today is not like yesterday,” he said, referring to the previous day’s stage 10 into Bellegarde-sur-Valserine, where Omega put Dries Devenyns into the day’s winning break and saw him make a late solo attack, only to be overtaken on the short climb to the finish line. “On stages like that, if there s a break, we can usually chase it down.”
Turning to Thursday’s vicious stage 11, which had just 15 kilometers of flat roads before hitting the hors-cat climbs of the Madeleine and Glandon (with its short extension to the Croix de Fer), Holm continued, “Today, you first have to find how your legs feel, and [if they feel good] then you go after it like a mad dog. And then you risk your life, you know, but if you get caught and then maybe you’ll lose 15 minutes on the last climb—that’s life!”
Holm emphasized, “They have to go like mad dogs. You don’t calculate, you just make suicide, kamikaze missions. That’s the way we have to do it now. We have to win…. You have to win stages.”
And that’s what the Omega riders Velits and Leipheimer both attempted. Velits was in the seven-man move that formed just before the foot of the Madeleine, and Leipheimer was in one of several small groups that bridged across to form a 28-strong breakaway at the top of the challenging 25-kilometer climb. And it was Velits who would take the King of the Mountains sprint on the Madeleine before he’d continued his attack on the descent.
Much of the work that created a three-minute advantage for the leaders over the summit was done by three riders from Europcar, who were eager to get a second stage win after their Thomas Voeckler won stage 10. Three riders from Astana had dual goals: the stage win and more KoM points for its Swedish rider Fredrik Kessiakoff. Also in this front group were Chris Horner, who was there to keep RadioShack in the hunt for the overall team prize, and Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin, who was shopping for KoM points.
Europcar obviously achieved their goal by earning the stage win by Pierre Rolland, and Kessiakoff achieved his by taking back the polka-dot jersey from Voeckler. But Omega’s Leipheimer and, eventually, Velits faded from the picture, with the American veteran ending the day completely drained after crossing the line almost 24 minutes after Rolland. In the end, despite a valiant effort, Irish climber Martin simply didn’t have the legs to stay with the breakaway. And Horner had to stop with cramps in both legs before recovering on the final climb to help RadioShack teammates Fränk Schleck and Haimar Zubeldia extend their lead in the team race to more than 12 minutes over Sky.
As for the yellow jersey race, several men had been sent ahead to be of potential help for their leaders later in the day. They included Frenchman Amaël Moinard for BMC’s Cadel Evans, and Ivan Basso and Kristjan Koren for Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali. Evans and Nibali were the two challengers who needed to attack, but it was still a shock when Evans make his move on the steepest part of the Glandon ascent, and an enormous 67 kilometers from the stage finish.
The BMC tactic was well executed. Tejay Van Garderen made an initial acceleration and was waiting to pace Evans after his leader jumped away from the fast-diminishing pack. It took a huge effort from Evans to jump away from that small peloton, which had been led for most of the climb by Team Sky’s Mick Rogers, who was riding for his team leaders, Brad Wiggins in the yellow jersey and fellow Brit Chris Froome.
Wiggins later said he was surprised by the Evans move. “To attack and then to sustain a higher tempo than [we were] and stay away with two climbs to go, I was surprised,” he said. “It’s not something I would have had the balls to do.”
The tactic was sound, as was the execution, because Moinard waited back from the breakaway group and began to pull for Van Garderen and Evans when they joined him. But they didn’t gain more than 20 seconds on the Rogers-paced group. Besides its audacity, the move only lasted five kilometers (five extremely steep kilometers!) because of the human element. Moinard was just not capable of pulling his tem leaders for more than a few pedal strokes, and Evans had a harder time than expected in catching Van Garderen, and then had trouble holding the young American’s wheel.
That strong move by Evans, though fruitless because of the massive efforts by Rogers, was certainly a factor in the defending champion’s later being dropped after Froome made a strong surge on a steep pitch four kilometers from the top of the finishing climb to La Toussuire. Van Garderen did his best young riders’ white jersey proud by slowing to help Evans and then pacing his team captain over the final three, mostly flat kilometers.
After refusing to say anything to the media at the finish after he conceded time to all his main rivals, Evans later admitted on his Blog, “I was not having my best day” and “being over three minutes down is a long way from optimal.”
Van Garderen, who’d ridden superbly and was a keen observer of the Sky riders’ strengths and weakness, was more optimistic about the outcome. “We saw the first signs of Sky cracking today,” he said. “It looked like Froome was getting dropped [at one point], then [Richie] Porte got dropped after only half a kilometer of pulling. Michael Rogers was incredible today."
“It’s the first time that Wiggins was isolated and if we can do that again on the next mountain stage, and Cadel’s legs come back to him, then anything is still possible. Cadel is mentally strong so he won’t let today bother him, and if Sky is in decline with their numbers….”
At the same time, Wiggins, now leading the Tour by 2:05 over teammate Froome, with Nibali at 2:23 and Evans at 3:19, sounded as if he thought that Evans’s challenge was over when he wrote on twitter: “And big respect to Cadel, champion till the end….”
The end of this debilitating stage? Or the end of this Tour?
I bet you can’t wait to see these gladiators trading blows at the next opportunity—whether it’s over the lumpy climbs to Friday’s stage finish in Annonay, or on the three climbing stages coming up in the Pyrénées next week.